Looking Back on Air Max

Shining Like the Silver on an Air Max 95: Celebrating the History of Nike's Cult Shoe in Hip-Hop and Grime

From Mac Dre to Skepta, we look at Air Max's enduring legacy.
March 6, 2017, 1:06am
A Nike Air Max 1 campaign from the late '80s

This article is presented by Nike as part of Air Max Month, which celebrates the enduring legacy of the Air Max

Since being introduced in 1987, Nike's Air Max range has truly transcended its original role as a running shoe, stomping from street stoops to runways with supreme confidence. The sneakers have become signifiers of cultural clout across the globe—whether it's the Japanese preference for Air Max 95 or the Italian obsession with Air Max 97—and continue to build momentum as more bubbly iterations are released into the urban wilderness. Still, while Air Max have been adopted by countless tribes over the years, the sneakers have become inextricably interwoven with the world of hip-hop.

Melbourne DJ Yo! Mafia has been collecting sneakers for over 30 years, and attributes hip-hop's love for Air Max to its groundbreaking design. Back in 1987, the Air Max 1 arrived a brazen red swoosh and a visible air unit inspired by the Pompidou's exposed construction, completely unprecedented in the world of runners.

Mafia says that Tinker Hatfield's head-turning creation aligns with the subculture's outcast mentality: "Hip-hop isn't the type of culture to want to blend into the crowd. We like our shit on show, so what better way than to bust out a clear bubble of air jammed right into the heel of the midsole, breaking necks as we hit the pavement?"

For Mafia, the "diggin' in the crates" mentality championed by DJs to discover new music served a double purpose, like killing two birds with one stylish stone. "I used to work at a second-hand record store as a vinyl buyer and grader, and the amount of dope covers I'd see from early '90s hip-hop, R&B and new jack swing releases with Air Max featured prominently on the cover art was phenomenal. I made it my mission to find all those Air Max that I'd seen on those covers," she tells VICE.

The first press of Mac Dre's 'Rapper Gone Bad' album, released in 1999

The first press of Mac Dre's 'Rapper Gone Bad' album, released in 1999

Boogie Down Productions and Mac Dre are just two artists with Air Max adorning their album cover art, while legendary lyricists from Rakim to Big Pun have also been pictured wearing pairs. When the Air Max 95 was released and pushed the aesthetic envelope even further into outer space, it was no surprise that hip-hop fans latched onto its aggressive alien silhouette. One of rap's most famous sneaker mentions is dedicated to Sergio Lozano's creation, with The Game delivering a forever-quotable and ferocious shoutout to the 95 in his classic anthem 'Hate It Or Love It.'

He would later comment to Complex that the line "took me to heights never returned." Other rappers were more specific with their 95 references, with Fabolous giving nods to its original Neon colourway on 'Money Goes, Honey Stay' and Danny Brown showing 3M appreciation by boasting that he's "shining like the silver on an Air Max 95."

Over in the UK, rambunctious dancefloors at raves made Air Max a practical choice. "People were dancing all night or awake 24 hours at a time... It was very dressed down, people were wearing more comfortable footwear and baggy clothing," Ben Banks of Oki-ni tells The Guardian. With roots in UK electronic sounds, Grime emcees also wear Air Max to reflect their raw tales of everyday reality. In a short film by Grace LaDoja, DJ Logan Sama says, "for street culture in London, Grime is the soundtrack to that. Air Max is the uniform."

Dizzee Rascal's 'Boy In Da Corner' album, released in 2003

Dizzee Rascal's 'Boy In Da Corner' album, released in 2003

Dizzee Rascal famously dons Air Max BWs and a Nike tracksuit on the cover of his Boy In Da Corner album, with Red Bull Music Academy calling it "a middle finger to the surveillance era of CCTV" and a defining moment for Grime's style, which was more downplayed than much of hip-hop despite sharing some common ground. Dizzee went on to collaborate with Nike on his own editions of the Air Max 180 and 90, while fellow Roll Deep alumni, Skepta is set to release his own 'Blacklisted' Air Max BW in the near future. Melbourne-based Grime artists Fraksha and Diem even dedicate nearly a whole song to Air Max with 'Crepes.'

Australian rappers have also been vocal Air Max advocates. Delta name-drops the coveted 'Curry' Air Max 1s on 'Mayday,' while Sky'high rocks the underrated Air Max ST in the video for her signature single 'Hoodie & Nikes.' Additionally, Sky'high raps about staying "Air Maxed up come rain, hail or shine," and even slept with her first pair of 96s by her pillow in primary school. "Maxies are part of my upbringing. My songs are my everyday life, so therefore I'm gonna be spitting about them, even without the intention. It just is what it is," she says to VICE.

Sydney duo That's Them rap about keeping things fresh with the "93 Air Max in the box and they've never been worn," and member Sarm remembers his early sneaker encounters clearly. "One of the older lads I looked up to had a pair of BWs in the Marina Blue colourway, and I had to have a pair. My old girl didn't have a lot of money, so getting a pair of shoes that weren't hand-me-downs, let alone Nikes would have been a Christmas bloody miracle," he explains.

It's a similar narrative over in Western Sydney, where the Air Max Plus (better known as the TN) reigns supreme with its $239.95 price tag. Sitting at the premium end of the Air Max spectrum, they became a symbol of success for those who were previously unable to attain them.

With reference to the menacing caged favourite, Blacktown rapper and label head Fortay says that "the Air Max shoes were generally more expensive than other Nikes, so it was more like a status thing or a trophy to own a pair." Sneaker Freaker also note that the dearer price "has certainly added cachet to the TN's street-level hero status," and in their interview with collector Chris Aylen, he says that "B-boy culture was always about one-upping each other, whether that was with style or high value items... The Plus was a good model to continue that tradition."

And while much of the global Air Max fanfare is based around tradition, it's also been kept afloat by new technology-driven releases: Classics have been updated with Flyknit, Engineered Mesh, No Sew, Hyperfuse and hybrid models. We'll have to wait and see where DJs, emcees and writers steer the Air Max legacy next.

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Air Max Month celebrates the shoe that changed the sneaker world 30 years ago, and has continued to captivate generations of fans since. You can find out more about Air Max Month and the future of the revolution here